Home > Teaching > Teaching Thursday: How to spot a bad professor

Teaching Thursday: How to spot a bad professor

Cross posted to Teaching Thursday

This past week one of the blogs hosted by U.S. News and World Report published a short list of ways to spot a bad professor (via Anne Kelsch).  Two former university professors, Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman write for the blog giving some kind of authority. 

Here’s a short summary of their list:

1. The professor is boring.

2. The professor is bummed out.

3. The professor doesn’t give out a syllabus—or hands out a one-paragraph syllabus that is just the course description from the Web.

4. The professor isn’t clear about the requirements and how much they count.

5. The professor assigns an undoable amount of work—or no work at all.

6. The professor has incredibly petty rules.

7. The professor can’t fill the whole class period.

8. The professor seems unsure about the material.

9. The professor presents the material in a confused way.

10. The professor never involves the students.

First, it is probably important to realize that this list is designed to attract hits to their blog as much as to advise students.  Once we accept that, it is hard not to think that the list has some merit.  I think I would flee from a class if a professor showed any number of these traits.  More troubling, however, is the assumption that this kind of behavior is widespread on university campuses or at least common enough to make a list. 

There is also the issue of how to determine whether a professor is boring or whether a particular workload is “undoable”.  Petty rules and honest insecurity about material are likewise in the eye of the beholder.  Big classes often require some rules that would appear petty in a seminar environment.  For example, I tell my students that I am not particularly offended if their phone rings during class (and most of our students here at UND know that this is rude), but I am offended if the student answers the phone.  This kind of explicit statement is hardly necessary in a seminar environment.  On the other hand, I’ve found it productive to admit in a seminar that I struggled with a particular text.  This can often put a student at ease when confronting a very challenging text.  I am not sure that this strategy would be as effective in, say, a large lecture course.

The real question, I suppose, is not whether a list like this is good or not (after all, who would want to be taught by a “bummed out” or confusing professor?), but what are the basic assumptions about good teaching (or being a good professor) in this list. 

Categories: Teaching
  1. January 14, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Thanks very mcuh for reproducing our piece on your site; we’re always happy to have colleagues reading our piece. The purpose of our work is not to garner hits, but rather to help students navigate the shoals of college. The introduction to the complete piece expresses the point: “Many students are heading back for the second semester of college this week. How the semester goes will depend heavily on the quality of the courses they’ve chosen. Many students will consult sites such as rate my professors. com, their college’s own evaluation systems (when public), and the general scuttlebutt from their real and virtual friends. But it’s always better to size the professor up yourself by attending the first couple of lectures, then dropping the course if you think the professor is bad.”
    One of the issues raised in your comment is how to determine whether a professor is too boring or the workload undoable. It’s true that there’s a certain subjectivity here, and of course it’s a matter of degree, but we think that, since the student is the one who has to learn, often he or she is in a good position to determine what counts as too boring or an undoable workload. Many professors think that basic class rules are desirable; we agree. But’s it’s also possible to offer up so many rules that the class atmosphere becomes noxious and the professor unduly combative. (It does seem that it would be unnerving to allow one’s phone to ring but to be prohibited from answering. Why not just instruct the students to turn off the ringer?) And certainly in a seminar, or other advanced class, it’s fully appropriate to admit one is learning along with the students, that no investigator has all the answers (On the other hand, a bold confesion of this sort in an intro or service course might undermine the students’ confidence in the professor, more than anything else).
    All in all, the most basic “assumption” in this piece is that, since the student is the learn who has to learn, he or she should select professors from whom he or she can learn. We think that much is uncontroversial.
    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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